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6 Ways to Boost Mental Health and General Wellness

Happy Mental Health Awareness Month! Here, 6 tips to jumpstart your month.

I always felt like I was the only one who was an anxious mess inside—that everyone else around me knew how to feel comfortable, was proud of who they were, and lived struggle free. The feeling of not fitting in drove me to look for solutions that led me down some pretty dark paths. I now know, however, that I was wrong the whole time—everyone has an internal struggle. But most never reveal it for fear that they, too, are alone in their pain.

“You can’t tell just by looking at someone what they are dealing with inside.” —Danielle Rupp

I know, I know. It seems like every month there's another theme, usually backed by some organization hoping to profit from your social activism. I decided to jump on the Mental Health Awareness Month bandwagon, however, because I am all about breaking the stigma surrounding mental health issues and addiction issues (which are, not surprisingly, correlated). Among the 20.2 million adults in the U.S. who experienced a substance use disorder, 50.5 percent—10.2 million adults—had a co-occurring mental illness. And that's not to mention that 1 in 5 people will be affected by mental illness in their lifetime.

It's important for all of us to work together to break through the stigma of mental illness, because it can affect anyone. Even celebrities experience mental health issues; people such as Adele (postpartum depression), Miley Cyrus (depression), Dwayne Johnson (depression), and Lena Durham (OCD and anxiety) have gone public about their struggles. This is so important in bringing awareness to mental illness.

When Did Mental Health Month Begin?

In 1949, the National Mental Health Association (now known as Mental Health America) declared May as Mental Health Month. Though it initially begun as Mental Health Week, its growing public interest and the broad scope of issues meant that it broadened into a month-long awareness campaign. This year marks MHA's 70th year celebrating Mental Health Month!

What Is the Purpose of Mental Health Awareness Month?

Mental Health Month aims to raise awareness about mental health by fighting stigma, providing support, educating the public and advocating for policies that support people with mental illness and their families. It helps build an understanding of mental illness, increasing access to treatment and ensuring those who are struggling to know they are not alone.

Why Is Mental Health Month Important?

Research shows that many people suffer from mental health issues for years without seeking help. When we speak out about mental illness, it helps encourage others to recognize symptoms earlier rather than later, and it empowers people to have some control over their recovery. It also normalizes the struggle and reduces hiding, isolation, and shame. Early identification and intervention leads to better outcomes.

6 Ways to Boost Mental Health

According to the Mental Health America website, this year's campaign will center on the following themes: animal companionship (including pets and support animals), spirituality, humor, work-life balance, and recreation and social connections.

Below, I'll elaborate on these recommendations.

  1. Pet companionship. Many people with mental illness become socially isolated, and having a pet gives affection and companionship without judgment. Not only does having a pet dog encourage exercise and getting outdoors (which can help reduce depression symptoms), many people struggling with mental health issues experience a deep emotional connection with their pet that isn't always available from friends and family. The routine of caring for their pets gives their days structure. And did you know that interacting with animals can also increase your levels of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone?
  2. Spirituality. The importance of religion and spirituality are not sufficiently recognized by the psychiatric community, but should they be? My short answer is yes, but let me explain a bit further.

    Studies show that it depends on how the spirituality is expressed as to whether or not it's helpful in regards to mental health—increased anxiety is often found amongst those with a strict religious upbringing, and emotional distress is also greater in those who have a dogmatic or underdeveloped spiritual belief system. Some aspects of spirituality can lead to feelings of guilt or shame, which can be damaging to a person’s mental health. On the other hand, people who are confident in their spirituality tend to experience less anxiety and tolerate stress better.

    When people think of spirituality, they probably picture a church. But spirituality doesn't only include institutionalized religion. Spirituality looks different for everyone. Practicing mindfulness can be spiritual, as can practicing yoga or meditating. Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is recommended as a relapse prevention training for recurrent depression. Research has shown that MBCT can reduce relapse rates by 40 to 50 percent. Even taking a nature walk or sitting on the back porch at sunrise, can be spiritually grounding for some people.

  3. Humor. Although scientific studies into humor are relatively new, research over the past thirty years does suggests that humor matters and the act of laughing can have a positive impact on mental and physical health. It can relieve pain, strengthen the immune system, help people cope with or distract them from stress, connect them with others, and effectuate positive emotions.

    How can you inject more humor into your life? Attend a live comedy show or watch one on Netflix. Join a laughter therapy group (yes, these exist!) or spend time with friends who have an upbeat or positive attitude.

  4. Work-life balance. This is an important one! Long working hours, being disconnected from friends and family, and not having time to "clock out" from the job—are all contributing factors for stress and mental health issues in people who work. Do you work long hours or barely see your family? Are you thinking of work even when you’re not there? Or are you drinking too much alcohol or going on benders to cope with stress? Then your work-life balance may be off kilter.

    How can you improve your work-life balance? Establish healthy boundaries. Be clear about what time you will start and finish work and try to stick to those times. If you can, switch off any electronic connections to work when you’re not working. Turn off the work mobile phone, disconnect the work emails, or leave your laptop at work instead of brining it home with you. It’s also important to eat healthily, have a good sleep routine, and exercise regularly (but you already knew that!).

  5. Recreation. While it’s no secret that physical activity has positive effects on our mental health, recreation does not simply refer to going to the gym or playing a round of tennis. No, recreation is a broad term that encompasses all types of hobbies and interests. This may include social recreation (for example, bowling or playing chess), creative activities (such as writing, music or painting), or physical activity (such as swimming or running). All of these are good for our mental health because they enhance our social, psychological, and physical wellbeing. It can help you expand your social network, bring a sense of belonging or connection to others, increase social skills, and decrease social isolation. Recreational activities can also increase self-esteem, mindfulness (being in the present moment), sense of accomplishment, and overall improved satisfaction in life. Practically, being involved in a recreational activity can provide routine and structure, and something to look forward to.
  6. Social connection. Since loneliness plays a key role in developing addiction and mental health issues, the best way to counteract that is to connect with other human beings. Here’s how: Get involved in your community. The choices are unlimited! You can act in a community play, volunteer at a local shelter, sign up for the community garden, or enroll in a class at your community college. The website offers a slew of options for joining others for essentially ANY activity (they literally have groups for bingo, hiking, real-estate buying, and everything in between). If you are an employer, consider providing structured settings for employees to get to know one another on a personal level.

If you are struggling with mental health or addiction issues, choose a treatment that has a social element to it as well as educational and inspirational components. Reach out for help. Connect with other people who are experiencing the same challenges as you, and seek an approach that is the best fit for you. Don’t concern yourself too much with everyone else’s opinion—find one that speaks to you and move forward.

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